Danielle O’Toole wasn’t ready to leave.
With tears rolling down her face, smudging her warrior-like eye black, the left-hander entered the circle at Hillenbrand Stadium one last time in an Arizona uniform.
With a smattering of fans chanting her name, she crouched down like a catcher and brushed her hand over the pitching rubber.
“I was just saying ‘bye’,” said O’Toole, who sat there idly for several minutes. “I could hear [the fans].”
But her mind was elsewhere. The ace’s career was over and the ending was unlike anything you’d read in a fairytale.
“I feel gypped,” said a heartbroken O’Toole.
Had it been up to her, her last time entering that circle would have been minutes earlier, with Arizona nursing a 5-3 lead against Baylor in the seventh inning of a winner-take-all Super Regional game.
The Wildcats needed just three more outs to reach the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010 and O’Toole wanted to be the one to lead them there.
“I was ready,” she said.
But the ball was taken out of her hand. Head coach Mike Candrea summoned Taylor McQuillin from the bullpen to toss the final inning.
“I didn’t think it was necessary,” O’Toole said. “I was ready.”
Instead, she could only watch from the dugout as her team’s fate was determined without her.
“We just felt like Tooly was struggling with the middle of their lineup,” Candrea said. “Taylor did a pretty decent job last night and (we) thought a different look might be good.”
The first two Bears reached base, then Shelby McGlaun lifted a towering drive over the batter’s eye in center field for a game-winning, three-run homer, crushing the Wildcats’ postseason dreams — dreams they seemed all but destined to reach.
Candrea said his 52-9 team had “all the pieces to the puzzle” and was positioned to make a deep postseason run, and it’s hard to disagree.
The Wildcats had a talented, lengthy lineup with one of the game’s most feared hitters in Katiyana Mauga, a dependable defense, an experienced senior class, and were able to play Super Regionals at home where they hadn’t lost consecutive games all season.
Most importantly, though, Arizona had an ace in O’Toole, who was the program’s first 30-game winner since 2010.
Yet, she wasn’t in the circle when it mattered most. That’s not how she imagined things unfolding when she transferred in from San Diego State (a move she’s said was the best decision of her life).
“I don’t want to take this jersey off. I’ve spent two years in it and I feel gypped,” she said. “And that’s not anyone’s fault.”
Candrea begged to differ. He took the blame.
“Our pitching changes surely didn’t work this weekend,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
But no matter whose fault it is — and to be fair, O’Toole had struggled to retire the middle of Baylor’s lineup — the end result is Arizona missed the WCWS for the seventh year in a row.
Sure, the 2017 team’s list of accomplishments is rather long — Arizona won its first Pac-12 title since 2007, had its winningest season since 2006 and had the Pac-12 Pitcher, Coach, and Player of the Year for the first time in program history among other things — but the team’s ultimate goal was to get to Oklahoma City and it failed.
“I just feel proud to be a Wildcat and to have this jersey on and to play for Coach Candrea and this staff, and to play next to amazing girls. You can’t ask for anything else,” said Mauga, who finishes her career as the Pac-12’s leader in home runs and second all-time in the sport.
“But there’s nothing to say. We lost.”
It’s especially disheartening for Mauga, O’Toole and the other six members of Arizona’s senior class, whom Candrea credited for putting Arizona softball “back on the map” and changing the culture of the program, only to have their careers end in an all-too-familiar fashion.
Arizona lost Games 2 and 3 in a Super Regional in 2016, too.
“Originally when I got here I was expecting a little something different and it’s not anything bad on the previous teams, but this team was so special,” O’Toole said.
And still stunned how its season ended, O’Toole finally stands up and exits the circle at Hillenbrand Stadium for good.
She migrates to a spot outside the Lapan Family Center just beyond the left field wall and sits back down.
The crowd has cleared, the sun is setting, the Oklahoma City-bound Baylor team has departed for the airport, and 45 minutes have passed since the Wildcats’ season ended.
O’Toole’s teammates have changed into street clothes, but the teary-eyed left-hander is still donning her white, No. 3 jersey.
She refuses to take it off.
Because once she does, she knows it’s never going back on.
“I didn’t think [this] was going to be the last time,” she said.
You can follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire